Fed by streams tumbling out from under a layer of clay where groundwater is trapped below the forest floor but exposed by the sheer walls of the sinkhole, Devil’s Millhopper is a world onto itself. With water in the bottom, it’s strangely humid, the air thick and heavy and like a warm blanket. When the bottom is dry, the interior tends to be much cooler than the surrounding forests. And so at the bottom of the sinkhole, wildflowers and plants that usually grow in more northerly climates thrive.
When Hurricane Irma swept through Florida in September 2017, it caused a great deal of damage around the state, including at Devil’s Millhopper State Park. Massive trees toppled and the onrush of water into the sinkhole eroded the hillsides that channel water deep into this formation. As a result, both the bridge over the ravine leading to the sink and the stairs into the sink were declared unsafe to use.
On June 5, 2019, Florida State Parks was finally able to open a newly constructed staircase down into Devil’s Millhopper. I’d been on several versions of the stairs before -- starting in the late 1970s, after the park first opened, up through nearly a dozen visits before Hurricane Irma hit. When John and I were working on Five Star Trails Gainesville & Ocala, we came here and counted the 232 steep steps down to the bottom, which I was accustomed to. So imagine my surprise to count only 131 steps and landings on the new staircase!
Ranger Jesse Natwick filled me in on the questions I had, starting with the number of steps. He said he believed it is 132 steps. “We have counted multiple times and that is the consensus,” he said, and I’m sure all of the rangers have taken their turns trying out the new staircase.
Construction on the new boardwalk and staircases began this January and wrapped up on June 4th, just in time for me to happen to learn about it thanks to a Visit Gainesville post on Instagram. Since I was in the area visiting my sister, we decided to make it a family outing to try out the new boardwalk.
The staircase no longer goes to the bottom of the sinkhole, as we describe in most of our books. Instead, it ends up at a broad observation landing well above the bottom of the sinkhole, which is currently flooded.
“The last 4 to 5 years the sinkhole has been holding a few feet of water at the bottom,” said Ranger Jesse. “We are not 100% sure why. It could be that the aquifer is full -- but that’s hard to believe -- or it could be sediment building up at the bottom clogging the path the water takes to go to the aquifer. This is part of the reason when we get a lot of rain the water comes up and the old boardwalk was under water.”
If you walk over to either end of the observation deck, you can see the near cascades up close. But since the stairs no longer go to the bottom, the old deck with a bench on it over past the main cascade has been removed.
The stairs on the new staircase are not as steep, either, and are broader, making it easier for visitors to pass each other going up and down. It isn’t entirely wooden, either. Ranger Jesse mentioned the boardwalk decking was made of Trex, which explained why it had a “plastic wood” type look and a bit of a scent to it. Trex is made from 95% recycled materials, including plastic grocery bags, recycled plastic wraps, and reclaimed wood scrap and sawdust. As we’ve noticed, Trex has become a go-to product for Florida State Parks to use for boardwalk replacements.
You can take a hike to experience the new descent into Devil’s Millhopper yourself, or go with a guide. On Saturdays at 10 AM, park rangers led guided walks into Devil’s Millhopper. If you are bringing a large group, call ahead and they may be able to provide a guide at a time other than the usual weekly walk.
Take a virtual hike to the bottom of Devil’s Millhopper on the new boardwalk with us.